Texas A&M University professor Lori Taylor has a reputation for being fiscally conservative when it comes to school finance.
When Texas school districts sued the state for underfunding public schools last decade, Taylor took the stand as an expert witness for Texas and said schools didn't need much more money than they already had. She recommended the state give the 46 school districts suing a boost of less than $1 million — after they demanded hundreds of millions more.
So when lawmakers in Kansas lost a school finance lawsuit of their own, they hired Taylor, more than 600 miles away in College Station at A&M's Bush School of Government and Public Service, to advise them on how much more to spend. Districts that sued Kansas wanted at least $600 million in new funding. Lawmakers were hoping for much less.
Taylor did not give them a modest number.
Earlier this month, she said Kansas would need to invest as much as $2 billion more over the next five years to ensure that 95 percent of the state’s students graduate and that test scores rise significantly. That would be a 44 percent funding increase. Her presentation sent Kansas lawmakers into a frenzy, forming ripples felt two states away in Texas as a state-appointed panel here brainstorms how to overhaul school funding yet again.
Some public education advocates are now wondering how her study would play out in Texas: If the data shows money could drastically improve graduation rates in Kansas, then wouldn't more money help Texas schools?
Taylor acknowledged in an interview with The Texas Tribune last week that Kansas lawmakers were shocked at how large the number was, given her more conservative estimate for Texas more than a decade ago. "Bankrupt the state. That's what you'd have to do," a Republican Kansas lawmaker reportedly said, as the state's Legislature scrambles to find money in the budget.
But Taylor said her 2004 study in Texas and her recent Kansas study are both correct, based on the data she was working with.
"One gives the most accurate number one can. In hindsight, our Texas number was remarkably accurate," she said. "That doesn't in any way prejudice what's going to happen the next time one does the analysis."
But Taylor also warned against using her Kansas study to argue Texas schools need more money. Kansas schools have different student needs, spending habits, academic goals, achievement levels and costs than Texas schools, she said.
"If I were to look at Texas, I have no idea whether the number would be large or small," she said. "I'm the kind of researcher who lets the chips fall where they may."
Focus on efficiency
It bothers Taylor that she has a reputation for being a conservative economist. A former economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and national-level education consultant, she would much rather be known for the care she takes with her studies and the accuracy of her results.
Her reputation likely comes from her emphasis that school districts should spend efficiently, doing the most with the fewest dollars possible. A couple of years ago, she helped former Comptroller Susan Combs, a Republican, start the Texas Smart Schools Initiative, which rates school districts on how well they show strong academic results while keeping costs low.
The Texas Senate studied that initiative prior to the most recent legislative session while exploring the idea of tying state funding to performance measures — an idea that never came to fruition but worried some school leaders.
"To that extent, yes, you could say I'm conservative," Taylor said. "I do believe that money only matters when it's used wisely."
But her line of work seems to guarantee that she’ll make someone angry no matter what numbers her models spit out.
"There are strong opinions on just about any side of the issue," she said.
In Kansas, the skepticism began before she even presented her results. Last month, before she made her $2 billion recommendation, a memo began making rounds through the state Capitol in Topeka casting doubts on her credibility.
The document quoted a ruling from last decade’s lawsuit between the state and Texas schools. Taylor's calculations finding minimal financial need for schools “simply are not credible on their face,” wrote Texas District Judge John Dietz. He also said her approach was “seriously flawed.” (In 2005, the state Supreme Court upheld part of his ruling in favor of the school districts.)
Addressing Kansas lawmakers in February, Taylor found herself defending a study more than decade old from a different state. She argued that her previous estimates were correct. In the years after Dietz's ruling, the school districts suing Texas met state standards without spending much more money, she said.
Soon after, she released her findings indicating that Kansas was in a far different situation. To get to her $2 billion recommendation, she measured factors like how much and how efficiently Kansas school districts were spending, the academic outcomes they achieved and the needs of their student body — and then determined the cost of meeting the aggressively rigorous goals Kansas had set for its schools.
Kansas schools are spending more efficiently than those in Texas were in 2004, and need more money to meet higher educational standards, she said.
"Accuracy can be conservative, but it doesn't have to be conservative," she said. "I don't have a philosophical bent."
What does it mean for Texas?
Texas school leaders would likely argue that they’re now in a similar financial position as Kansas. Experts say districts on a whole are doing as much as they can to educate a growing number of students, including many who need expensive programs like special education or bilingual education.
"There was a time when we were not efficient but I think those days are long gone," said Tracy Ginsburg, executive director of the Texas Association of School Business Officials, a nonprofit organization that analyzes school finance. "About 80 percent of our budget goes to things that directly benefit the classroom."
In 2011, Texas replaced its state standardized test with a tougher version while cutting $5 billion from public schools. That money has never been completely restored. A decade ago, the state covered about 48.5 percent of the cost of education. Its share will drop to 38 percent next fiscal year.
But unlike Kansas, Texas school districts lost their last court battle over finances. In 2016, the state Supreme Court ruled that the school finance system is faulty but constitutional — or good enough.
Last Monday, a few days after Taylor addressed Kansas lawmakers, dozens of Texas school administrators and public education advocates addressed the Texas School Finance Commission, which had convened to help lawmakers overhaul the way Texas funds its public school system. Laying their arguments out one-by-one over the course of 10 hours, education leaders told the panel that schools need more money and the state needs to know the price tag of meeting its long-term academic goals.
The commission has also heard from several scholars who argued school districts need to spend their funds more wisely — that the amount they receive isn't a crucial factor. State Board of Education member Keven Ellis, a Lufkin Republican and a member of the commission, said the results of Taylor's study in Kansas proves that narrative wrong: "It's how you spend the money and how much you have to spend."
Many school officials agree. In the last few years, Texas set a goal of having 60 percent of Texans between 25 and 30 hold some kind of degree or certification by 2030.
"I'm here to tell you that is an unrealistic number," Alief ISD Superintendent HD Chambers told commission members Monday. "It will not happen unless there are significant changes in terms of resources made."
Texas school districts need to spend more to get more kids graduating, and they need more money from the state to do that, he said. But Chambers told the Tribune he doubts lawmakers will ask Taylor to use her data to make a new recommendation for Texas.
“There's no political will in the state of Texas to raise any revenue to answer that question," he said.
Taylor, for her part, says she has all the data she needs to give an answer.
"I would welcome the opportunity to do that kind of analysis," she said.
But so far, she hasn’t run the numbers. No one has commissioned the study.
Disclosure: Texas A&M University and the Texas Association of School Business Officials have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.